Dear Wayne Hermsen,
We write regarding the recent decision to remove the book Sari Says: The Real Dirt on Everything from Sex to School, by Sari Locker. We believe this is a classic case of censorship and urge you to reconsider. It seems clear that the removal of the book was based on objections to its content, which is impermissible under the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, the constitution does not permit "officially prescribed orthodoxy" which limits what people may read, think, speak, or say.
We understand that Sari Says was initially ordered based on the positive reviews the book received, and that it met the criteria that form the basis for the library's collection development policy. Having already made it into the library's catalog system, the book was then ordered returned to the publisher after a complaint by a library staff member who objected to the book's content. Sari Says had already been deemed appropriate by the young adult librarian, and was also approved by the library director, two individuals with much experience at judging the suitability of reading material.
At a minimum, the Library Board has an obligation to articulate legitimate grounds for its decisions, something they could not plausibly do without having read the book. The book is in fact well regarded by professional journals, parents, and young readers alike. A mother writing an Amazon.com review describes the book as a "fantastic read for teens . . . I recommend it highly for any teen or parent." She also notes that the book provided her daughter with vital information, such as how to communicate better with her. The School Library Journal describes Locker, the advice columnist for Teen People magazine, as "among the best at providing clear, nonjudgmental answers" for her readers. Moreover, it applauds Locker for considering the emotional aspects of sex and discussing possible health risks. A young reader remarked, "Sari must be reading my mind," saying that Locker's ability to relate to her readers enables them to confront problems such as shyness and become more confident in themselves.
An objection to the book because of its sexual content not only fails to consider the book as a whole, but also ignores the library's obligation to serve all kinds of readers, including those who seek access to information about sex. The one chapter of the book exclusively devoted to that topic is factual and objective and an appropriate resource for a public library. A common misunderstanding is that 'community standards' justifies removing books with sexual or other potentially controversial content. In First Amendment law, however, "community standards" is one factor in determining whether material is obscene and would not authorize removal of otherwise legal material targeted for its content.
The July 10 decision to use the word "return" when describing the removal of the book is a change only in semantics, with no implications for the constitutionality of the Board's actions. The book had been ordered, received, and catalogued by the library, and was awaiting its display on the shelves; it was taken off the floor, packed up, and shipped back to the publisher only after complaints about its content and message. Whether termed a removal or a return, these acts are judged by constitutional standards.
The book is now unavailable to all readers, including adults. Whatever arguments might be advanced to justify denying minors access to non-obscene sexual content are inadequate to deny adults access to legal materials. As the Supreme Court has repeated on numerous occasions, "The level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox."
We strongly urge you to protect the rights of all readers to read and think freely, and to reject the notion that the choices made by any one reader may be imposed on any other. By reinstating the book you will demonstrate respect for your readers and their choices, for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public, and for the First Amendment and its importance to a pluralistic democratic society.
Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship